The Weird And Wild World Of Fireworks Retail

The Weird And Wild World Of Fireworks Retail

With the Fourth of July imminent, some items are somewhat taken for granted as critical to the enjoyment of the holiday. Things to put on the grill; red, white and blue-themed desserts; small-town parades and, of course, fireworks. No matter how one celebrates, odds are good it will involve some kind of pyrotechnic display to commemorate the four guiding principles of the great American experiment: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and festive explosions.

Most will head to their town or city display. But for the few and the proud, the Fourth of July is an opportunity to try their hand at some backyard pyrotechnics. Whether or not that is a good idea, or whether it would be a better idea to head to the local fireworks display instead of trying to compete with it at home, is not our place to say. We will note that over $1 billion in alcoholis forecast to be purchased during the holiday weekend, and out of the nation’s 9,100 visits to the ER each year for fireworks-related injuries,5,600 happen on and around the Fourth. That’s a long way of saying that alcohol and fireworks clearly don’t mix.

But even if one intends to be a model citizen while shooting off their home pyrotechnics arsenal, depending on the state they live in, things could get complicated, and quickly. Fireworks are regulated on a state level, with a range of legalities that run from completely forbidden for anything bigger than a sparkler to completely legal if it is smaller than a tomahawk missile.

And many of the in-between laws are very weird. In Ohio, one can buy bottle rockets, but it is illegal to set them off within the state. In Pennsylvania, until two years ago, it was legal to sell any kind of firework, as long as it wasn’t sold to a resident of the state of Pennsylvania. Out-of-staters (particularly New Yorkers, where almost all fireworks are verboten) were encouraged to buy as many exotic fireworks as they could carry, while in-state residents were restricted to a much less explosive list.

Fireworks are an unusual business, a Phantom Fireworks representative told PYMNTS. The rules change an awful lot around who can have them, when they can be sold, what can be sold and how exactly to classify a specific type of firework.

Simply explained, fireworks can be broken into two large categories: consumer and display. Display fireworks are what Macy’s will shoot off over New York Harbor to celebrate the Fourth of July. They require a license to use and don’t generally have a lot of state-to-state variance in their regulation. Consumer fireworks, on the other hand, are what normal people can (in some places) buy to shoot off in their yards. They are heavily but sometimes inconsistently regulated. Broadly, all consumer fireworks are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Their main concern, however, is the production, with the requirement of a federal explosive manufacturing license. Distribution, sales and storage, on the other hand, are entirely left up to state and local jurisdictions.

Understanding all of those local jurisdictions is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Phantom, which has 78 vendors around the United States, employs an entire department that does nothing but study and try to understand local fireworks laws. Teams of accountants have to keep track of fees and taxes, and a staff of lawyers have to stay on top of the laws, which have a tendency to change “like clouds.”

It would be better for Phantom – and possible for everyone – if fireworks were a somewhat less confusing product to buy and use, particularly during a time like the Fourth of July weekend, when they are so in demand. But Phantom doesn’t anticipate the laws changing anytime soon, or demand for fireworks to fall in the U.S. in the near future, either.

Which means, from their point of view, there is only one thing to do.

“You have to stay on top of it. It’s a pain in the neck, but it’s one of those necessary things we have to do,” Phantom Fireworks Vice President William Weimer noted in an interview.


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Our data and analytics team has developed a number of creative methodologies and frameworks that measure and benchmark the innovation that’s reshaping the payments and commerce ecosystem. The July 2019 Pay Advances: The Gig Economy’s New Normal, a PYMNTS and Mastercard collaboration, examines pay advances – full or partial payments received before an ad hoc job is completed – including how gig workers currently use them and their potential for future adoption.


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